My Gibson Les Paul Studio ’60s Tribute Darkback

I’ll start by laying my cards on the table. I’m a big fan of Fender guitars and amps. I own an American Standard Stratocaster and Hot Rod Deluxe amplifier – a perfect combination. But you know what? Lately I’ve been hankering after a bit more beef in my tone. A bit more grunt.

I’ve always thought the Les Paul Gold Top was a great looking guitar. In the early years of manufacture it was fitted with P-90 pickups – super cool. But these days most Gold Tops come fitted with humbuckers, which are a bit too muddy sounding for me. As a Start owner, I suppose I’m too used to a good dose of jangle and shimmer. I’m not too keen on bound necks either. Particularly the nibbed type of binding that is a feature of many guitars in Gibson’s range. You pay extra for it and the nibs make re-fretting more complicated – the nibs that sit either side of the fret ends have to be ground down during the re-fretting process.

So, the other day, when my son Harry and I popped in to my local guitar shop (Guitar Guitar in Epsom) for a mooch, the purchase of a Les Paul couldn’t have been further from my thoughts. That was until I spied a very interesting variation hanging on the wall. There, in all its Gold Top glory, looking very fine and dandy, was a Les Paul Studio ’60s Tribute – the Darkback version. What I found instantly appealing was the unbound neck and P-90 pickups – this was a Les Paul I could get on with.

As if by magic, Will appeared beside us. If you’ve read previous posts you’ll know that of all the guitar store assistants I’ve met – and I’ve met a lot –  Will is by far the most cheery and helpful. He’s highly knowledgeable. I respect his opinion on all things guitar related. In addition, he always makes the effort to say “hello” – probably because our purchases are frequent – and takes the time to ask Harry and me how we’re getting on with our latest bit of gear.

Will set us up in a sound room with the Les Paul Studio plugged into Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. I expected the two Gibson USA P-90 single-coil pickups to deliver a meaty tone, with more midrange punch than I would get from the single-coils on my Start. They didn’t disappoint – particularly when cranked with a decent measure of gain. I got midrange punch by the bucket load, and when driven with even more gain they began to sing with a wonderful open, dirty rawness. What really surprised me was how lush they sounded when played clean. They were warm and rounded, but not muddy. They were versatile. The treble had a nice bite to it when driven, but on a clean setting it sparkled, which I hadn’t expected. I’m so bored of people complaining about the hum emitted by P-90 pickups. They are not humbuckers. They hum, like most single-coil pickups. But not excessively. Get over it. These pups are visceral.

The body is crafted from chambered mahogany, joined to a solid carved maple top. The neck is constructed from solid mahogany, and cut using a “quarter sawn” orientation which improves strength and resonance. The fast and comfortable SlimTaper™ neck profile reflects the feel of Les Paul Standards from 1960. The fingerboard may look like rosewood, but is, in fact, baked maple.

Some tone woods, such as rosewood, are becoming harder to source and come with a whole range of restrictions on their use in manufacturing processes. As a result, Gibson and other brands are using a wide variety of materials, both natural and synthetic, to construct fingerboards. Until I’d seen the Studio ’60s Tribute, I wasn’t convinced that baked maple suited a Les Paul. All the Les Pauls I’d seen with a baked maple fingerboard just looked wrong. The baked maple looked too light in colour. I’ve spent too many years looking at Les Pauls with dark rosewood fingerboards. However, the darker baked maple used on the Studio ’60s Tribute suits the guitar – it resembles the colour of rosewood. Unlike traditional maple fingerboards, the baked maple is not coated with a lacquer. Hence, it can be conditioned in the same way as rosewood, with Lemon Oil, Fret Doctor or other similar product.

Baked maple is regular maple that has undergone a process called torrefaction. Gibson says:

Torrefaction is a process of heat-curing wood in a special kiln. This process makes the wood significantly stronger and virtually impervious to moisture, making it structurally ideal for fingerboards. As a natural bi-product of the process, the wood gains a warm, brown finish and looks remarkably similar in color to rosewood. Tonally, though, it’s closer to ebony due to its hardness.

Whatever the process involved, the fingerboard plays and sounds great. Compared with rosewood, maple – lacquered or baked – has an incredibly dense grain and is, therefore, super smooth. The factory setup on my guitar is fabulous. The action is low, but not so low that it causes string buzz or notes to choke. It’s fast and comfortable. I’m surprised at how shallow the nut slots are on the thicker strings. The lower strings sit proud of the top surface of the nut. I’m used to strings sitting deep in their nut slots. Maybe this is a Les Paul thing. I’ll have to investigate. I have a bit of an obsession with string spacing relative to the width of a fingerboard, and I love the spacing on this guitar. There is a sensible amount of space either side of the high and low E strings and the edge of the fingerboard – not too much, not too little. My only criticism is that the fret ends could have been given a bit more care. They are not as smooth as I’d like, but not as bad as some forum posts would have you believe.

From the photo above, you’ll note that the finish is rich, but not glossy – satin. I love it. Gibson says the guitar is:

…hand-finished in nitrocellulose in a process that is carefully monitored to ensure minimum build-up, in an effort to produce a finish that breathes with the guitar and enhances natural resonance, and the final coat is hand-rubbed with a flattening agent to enhance its aged appearance. Unlike many other manufacturers, who settle for a polyurethane finish, Gibson opts for a nitrocellulose finish that will encourage the natural vibration of the instrument for a purer tone. In addition, a nitro finish is very porous and actually gets thinner over time.

Nitrocellulose has incredible properties, but you can’t be as care free with your guitar as you might if it was finished in a polyurethane varnish. Nitrocellulose reacts when it comes into contact with certain materials, which include leather and rubber, so never use a guitar stand with rubber parts that come into contact with the guitar or attach a strap with leather ends – you’ll damage the finish on your nitro-covered guitar.

To keep costs down, the guitar comes with a gig bag as standard. The headstock is set at the traditional 17-degree angle to ensure good transference of vibrational energy. But this results in a very snug fitting gig back. Too snug for my liking. I’m going to invest in a hard case. If you plan to do the same, make sure that the lining is nitro friendly.

The Gibson Les Paul Studio ’60s Tribute retails at around £700. That is incredible value. It comes in a range of colours, with either a worn finish or a dark coloured back. Get one while you can – it’s a limited edition.

Full spec – Les Paul Studio ’60s Tribute (Worn Finish)
Full spec – Les Paul Studio ’60s Tribute (Darkback)

To whet your appetite, below are a few videos which demonstrate the guitar’s surprising tonal versatility: